NORMAL, Ill. -- This was supposed to be someone else’s year.
Montini, to no one’s surprise, had won the last two Class 3A state championships. The Broncos had been stacked with Division I players, and it would have been a shock if they hadn’t raised back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011.
This year’s Montini team didn’t have those same expectations placed on it. The program had graduated its star players and while it had some young talent coming up, even Montini coach Jason Nichols thought his team was a year away from its next state championship.
The Broncos proved Nichols and everyone else wrong on Saturday.
A night after rallying from 13 points behind in the fourth quarter to upset Hillcrest, the Broncos rolled to a 56-38 win over Vernon Hills on Saturday to win their third consecutive Class 3A state championship.
“A lot of people said this year would be our downfall, but we proved them wrong,” said Montini sophomore Jasmine Lumpkin, who scored a team-high 14 points. “We came back. We had a lot of motivation to come back and win another state title.”
As Nichols stood off to the side as his players celebrated, he expressed how this latest title did feel different than his previous ones.
“Just nobody expected us to be here, including their coach at times,” Nichols said. “I thought maybe when the pairings came out we had a shot to go down. I thought Hillcrest, Springfield would be the two favorites. All of a sudden, we were there.”
Nichols was worried about his team’s energy heading into Saturday’s game. The Broncos had been through a draining game against Hillcrest, and he noticed they looked tired when they met for breakfast.
Montini put his concerns to rest quickly. The Broncos scored the game’s first five points and fired off 11 more consecutive points after Vernon Hills scored its first two points. By the end of the first quarter, Montini was ahead 16-3.
The second quarter was even more one-sided. Leading 22-3 with 5:07 left in the half, Montini’s students began chanting, “This is over.” Montini held Vernon Hills without a field goal in the first half and took a 31-10 lead into halftime.
“We had our hands up, were deflecting the ball and were rebounding,” said Montini senior Tianna Brown, who had 13 points. “We were allowing one shot.”
It was a dream first half for Montini and a nightmare one for Vernon Hills. The Cougars went into the locker room at halftime defeated, but they emerged with a new attitude.
“We came out not as strong as we could have, but at halftime we realized that we’re in the state championship,” Vernon Hills sophomore Sydney Smith said. “This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of us. We’re the underdogs of this thing.
“We beat the No. 1 seed [Friday.] We realized we got this. We got to go intense, have fun. We have nothing to lose here. We’re in the state championship. Just give it your all.”
Smith jump-started the Cougars with a layup on their first play of the second half. She added three more field goals and scored 10 points in the quarter to give Vernon Hills’ large student section a chance to cheer.
Vernon Hills never threatened Montini, but the Cougars made it a competitive second half. They pulled within 14 points on a few occasions.
For Vernon Hills, it was the end of a historic season. The Cougars hadn’t even won a regional before the season.
“In the beginning, we wanted to make it to state more than anything in the world,” Smith said. “We didn’t know it was actually going to happen. We took each thing by each step and worked our butts off to get here. It was not easy at all. Yesterday’s game wasn’t easy. This game wasn’t easy.
“Maybe the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but second place at state … can’t complain.”
Smith scored a game-high 17 points, and Lauren Well contributed 13 points for Vernon Hills (27-6).
Kateri Stone (13 points, three steals), Nikia Brown (10 points) and Sara Ross (eight rebounds) contributed for Montini (33-5).